High Context and Low Context

A useful distinction can be found in Hall’s (1977) differentiation between what he calls high-context and low-context cultures and Maruyama’s (1974) contrast between unidirectional and mutual causal cultural para­digms. In the low-context, unidirectional culture, events have clear univer­sal meanings; in the high-context, mutual causality culture, events can be understood only in context, meanings can vary, categories can change, and causality cannot be unambiguously established.

Though this distinction has more meaning when comparing macrocul­tures, it has utility for organizations as well. For example, DEC was a high- context culture in which the meaning of words and actions depended on who was speaking and under what conditions. Managers knew each other well and always took into account who the actors were. When a senior man­ager was observed publicly punishing a subordinate for doing something “dumb,” this sometimes simply meant that the subordinate should have gotten buy-in from a few more people before going off on his own. When Ken Olsen publicly berated one of his engineers, observers often pointed out that Ken only did that with engineers whom he highly respected and therefore expected perfection from them. Ciba-Geigy, by contrast, was a low-context culture in which messages tended to have the same meaning no matter whom they were coming from. To be labeled “dumb” in Ciba- Geigy would have been a severe negative judgment.

When we refer to language, we often overlook the role of context. We assume that when someone has learned the language of another country, he or she will be able to understand what is going on and take action. But as we know all too well from our own cross-cultural travel experiences, language is embedded in a wider context in which nonverbal cues, tone of voice, body language, and other signals determine the true meaning of what is said. A vivid example from my own experience was the previously cited senior management meeting of the British Petroleum Company at which I thought I observed polite explanations from the chairman, only to be told later that he had never been more brutal than he was at that meeting.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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